So we all know that old story your grandma used to tell you… ‘Make sure you eat plenty of fish so you grow up to be a brainbox’ but where did she get this odd idea from? It turns out there really is plenty of science behind this! Fish contain omega fatty acids which besides making you the next big geek (we must have eaten all our fish!!), have lots of other benefits as well. Our friends over at Beauty by the Geeks have taken the time to share some of the science behind these amazing little molecules with us – if you want a more beauty biased version feel free to have a look at the original article.
So what are omega fatty acids??
Omega fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids; this means they have several double bonds between the carbon atoms that make them up. This causes them to kink and act as liquids at room temperature. They generally have 18-22 carbon atoms with a carboxyl group (-COOH) at one end (this is called the alpha end). There’s also a methyl group (-CH3) at the other end. There are several different types of omega fatty acids, but the main two are omega-3-fatty acids and omega-6-fatty acids (named because of where the first double bond is – Omega-3 has the first double bond on the third carbon from the omega end).
Why should we learn about them?
Both omega-6 and omega-3 are called essential fatty acids: our body cannot make them, so we must eat them as part of our diet to stay healthy, unlike other fats which our body will happily make for us! Omega-6 is generally more available in the diet, as it is contained within nut and plant based oils which are often used in everyday cooking. Getting omega-3 into our system is slightly trickier as it’s mainly found in oily fish which is less common in our diets. There are three main types of omega-3-fatty acids which differ due to the number of carbon atoms and the position of the double bonds. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are long chain fatty acids from oily fish, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is shorter and mainly from plant oils. Although our body can partially make EPA and DHA from ALA we’re still not the best at it – its best done by fish themselves!
Why are they so important?
Although much of the science behind these molecules is still being investigated we have a good idea of many of the effects omega-3 has on our body. It is vital dietary component from an early age, and granny was right, it is involved in brain development as it is a component of the cell membranes of the brain. These membranes are around 60% fat, and and omega-3 is vital for development of both vision and cognitive function (that’s learning, memory, language etc.). Because of this need for normal development, omega-3 supplements are often suggested to be taken throughout the pregnancy.
The best understood effect of omega-3 is its action against cardiovascular disease. It is vital to protect us from atherosclerosis (reduced elasticity of artery walls) which can lead to heart attacks and stroke. Omega-3 lowers the amount of triglycerides (fats) and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind of cholesterol) in our blood and can act directly on the heart to lower blood pressure by affecting calcium ion channels involved in the contraction of the heart muscle.
Blood clots are a common cause of health problems and omega-3 helps to combat this too! It is involved in making chemicals needed to break down unnecessary clots and also has mild anti-clotting effects to stop clots forming in the first place. It has been proven both CVD-sufferers and healthy individuals benefit from these effects.
Omega-3 also has anti-inflammatory properties. This is achieved through its action of genes to inhibit the production of molecules which encourage inflammatory responses, like interleukins, prostaglandins and leukotrienes. One of these targeted genes is called Kappa B, which is considered central to the whole inflammatory process. Regulating inappropriate inflammation is important for our general everyday health.
Now the science is a bit patchy on the rest of its effects but here a just a few it is thought to help. It is currently under investigation of whether it can fight cancer, stop inflammatory bowel disease and Rheumatoid arthritis, and even treat the early stages of Alzheimer’s as well as many more possibilities! That Kappa B gene we mentioned before has been identified as a possible link between inflammation and cancer development, so we can see how it might have anti-cancer effects!
It is recommended that we have 2 sources rich in omega-3 per week and the good news is its not destroyed by cooking, so whether your fry it or throw it in the oven the goodness is still locked up inside that juicy fish. If you’re not a fish fan omega-3 supplement tablets can be taken too so you really have no excuse now you know the benefits of the amazing omega fatty acids!
Beauty by the Geeks
Simopoulos, A. (1997). Nutrition tid‐bites: Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease Food Reviews International, 13 (4), 623-631 DOI: 10.1080/87559129709541143
Calder PC (2013). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology? British journal of clinical pharmacology, 75 (3), 645-62 PMID: 22765297